History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales
Thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for the Medieval Herald! Can you please begin by providing an overview of your book?
History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales is a study of how texts from ninth- and tenth-century Wales constructed ideas of ethnic identity. In other words, how did they set about defining the Welsh as a ‘people’, different to the other inhabitants of Britain and Ireland. Names were obviously important in furnishing a people with a collective identity, and they are also often linked to a specific territory. Attention might be drawn to the different language that a people spoke. More often than not, shared history was viewed as important, including the furnishing of an origin legend for the gens.My book considers each of these elements in turn and investigates their use by writers in the process of identity construction.
One of your conclusions is that early medieval writers viewed language as a key difference between the Welsh and other peoples, can you elaborate on this?
The role of language to identity construction in the medieval world is frequently neglected because our texts do not explicitly state that it was an important distinction between gentes. However, it was crucially important in a Welsh context, and I approach this issue a little differently in the book by examining how these early medieval writers used language. For example, both Historia Brittonum and the Life of King Alfred are Latin texts, but they also include place-names in English and Welsh. What this does is draw attention to the different languages spoken by these two groups. Historia Brittonum goes further still in including English dialogue. When Hengist, the leader of the Saxons, calls upon his followers to attack the Britons, he does so in English. Despite not explicitly stating that language is an important part of the identity of the gens, these texts consistently draw attention to the different languages spoken by the inhabitants of Britain.
How did you choose the texts to investigate? And do these texts represent the earliest records and origins of Welsh identity?
These texts are all securely dated to the ninth and tenth centuries, meaning that the study can be focused in its chronological scope. There is also a chain of familiarity between the texts; in other words, the writers were responding to each other’s depiction of identities. Exploring the connections between the texts is consequently an important dimension to the study. There are certain earlier texts, Gildas’s De excidio Britanniae, for example, as well as a corpus of Welsh poetry of uncertain date. But it is only from the ninth century that we see iterations of a specifically Welsh – rather than British – identity.
This is the first close examination of the construction of ethnic identity in ninth- and tenth-century Welsh texts, why do you think that is?
The construction of ethnic identities in the Middle Ages has been a subject that has generated a lot of interest. In the case of Wales, a lot of work has been done on the transformation of identities in sub-Roman period. The later period, from the twelfth century onwards, has also received significant attention. For the ninth and tenth centuries, the paucity of sources is a problem, and the sources that we do have are frequently difficult to locate chronologically and geographically. This period consequently calls for a close study of a handful of texts.
What is your background? Has this research always been of interest to you?
I first became interested in medieval Welsh history in my second year of my undergraduate degree in History. I thought I was primarily interested in modern history and only chose a medieval paper because it was compulsory for the course! I had a great supervisor and quickly realised that I wanted to pursue this avenue further. My undergraduate dissertation was on the topic of how medieval texts depicted interaction between the Welsh and English, and so depictions of gentes and questions of identity were something I gravitated towards quite early. Doing an MPhil in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic developed these interests further as I had the opportunity to work closely with the texts and to develop my language skills.
What do you have planned next?
In the second chapter of History and Identity in Early Medieval Wales I offer a detailed analysis of the place- and river-names included in Asser’s Life of King Alfred. This has led to a broader interest in the way medieval writers explain and translate place-names. I am currently investigating Gerald of Wales’s treatment of the Brecon Beacons, and how his comments are received and adapted in the early modern period.
What has your experience been of online conferences over the last two years? The hybrid model (online and in-person) seems likely to spread, at least in the short-term. What are your thoughts on conference formats these days?
The online format does mean that I’ve been able to attend more conferences over the last two years, and the impact on the environment is positive. However, it is also nice to be able to meet colleagues and friends face to face again.
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REBECCA THOMAS is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Cardiff University.